On 25 November – the International Day for the Elimination of Gender-based Violence - we called on governments to immediately ratify ILO Convention 190 on violence and harassment in the world of work. The Convention is the result of 10 years of mobilisation and activism by the global trade union movement. During the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-based Violence (25 November – 10 December), we will feature a series of stories written by education unionists who have been involved in eradicating violence in and around education settings. This is one of their stories.
Afare woke up that morning feeling very light-hearted. He whistled while he took his bath in a bathroom he would now call his own for he did not share it with another person. All his life he had shared bathrooms. At home where he grew up everybody shared one bathroom - his father, mother, and four siblings. He attended day schools for both primary and secondary, so he had never had the opportunity to see another bathroom. The bathrooms in the teacher training college were always busy especially early morning and in the evenings. The story telling while the students waited for their turn to use the bathrooms made the occasions entertaining.
“Anyway, that was all gone” Afare reminisced, as he smiled inwardly. ”I am now a qualified teacher preparing for my first day in school as Mwalimu Afare as everyone else would be calling me soon”.
Moments later he was dressed in the white shirt he had reserved for this occasion when he would show the world he had joined the noble profession, where not even the meagre salary would prevent him from getting the reward that awaited every teacher in heaven.
At 8 O’clock sharp, he was at the headmaster’s office. He knocked on the door and entered when he heard the words, “Come in”. The Headmaster was seated behind his desk and looked at him from above the rim of his glasses.
“Good Morning Sir”, Afare Chanted gleefully. “I am Mwalimu Afare.”
“Good Morning Mwalimu”, The Headmaster responded as he got up and turned towards the cabinet behind him. Then calling over his shoulder he asked;
“What is your subject again”
“Geography, Sir”, replied Afare.
The Headmaster then turned around and handed him some stapled document saying; “You will be teaching Senior Two and this is the syllabus”. The Headmaster then pulled out a form and told Afare;
“That is for the timetable. The general timetable is in the staff room. Ask whoever is there to help you extract your own. I have a meeting at the education office in town this morning. Good luck.”
Afare said thank you and proceeded to look for the staffroom. He found the staffroom, but nobody was in it. He looked around the staffroom and located the general timetable. He scanned the timetable to see what is on in his class. Indeed, he discovered that he had a Geography class in S.2 and it was ten minutes into time.
Afare had not been discouraged by the lukewarm reception he had received from the Headmaster and was optimistic that things would get better when he met his colleagues. He had even heard that as a teacher he would belong to a family called a teachers’ union which would take care of his welfare and professional needs. There would be enough time to discover everyone including the education office. In the meantime, he would go and meet his Geography class. “Excuse me”, He called out to a student passing by. “Where is Senior two?” “Over there, it is the second door on that block”, the student answered without giving him a second glance.
Afare moved towards the classroom not giving a thought to why the student had not given him a second glance or why he had not called him ‘sir’. Afare could in fact have passed for the student’s agemate. It did not occur to Afare that he was not much older than the students in his class.
Afare was probably too naïve to have realised that he had not undergone any meaningful orientation into the school life. The headmaster had not called him by name, nor remembered the subject he was to teach. No reference had been made to a head Geography teacher, or any other teacher of the class he was about to meet. He had no idea what topics had been covered by the class and where on the syllabus he should begin. He did not know that someone ought to have given him proper orientation. Afare was far from knowing that a school representative or steward of a union could be an entry point or soft landing in settling him into the complexity of school communities.
Afare could not have known better until he encountered what was supposed to be his dream moment in his dream class for the first time as “Mwalimu”.
Mwalimu Afare raised his shoulders, lifted his chin, and planted a smile in readiness to meet his class. The greeting he had rehearsed a few times flashed through his mind; “Good Morning class. I am Mwalimu Afare. I will be teaching you Geography and I am happy to meet you all”
He took the final step towards the S.2 Classroom. He turned the doorknob and stepped into the classroom. The scene that greeted him was more than he had bargained for. A boy was lying over a visibly hopeless girl in a mock sexual act while other boys cheered on. Some boys were perched on top of their desks laughing at the top of their voices. A group of girls cuddled fearfully in a corner while some boys taunted them.
Afare took in the situation with utter dismay. His chest was pounding as anger built up within him. He mustered all he could and shouted: ‘Stop! What do you think you are doing?”
The room seemed to have come to a complete stand still. One could have heard a pin drop at that moment. Then slowly a motion picture begun to unfold before Afare’s eyes. Like in slow motion, the heads and eyes of the boys started turning towards the intruder. Like portraits, the girl’s eyes remained wide open and fixed on Afare. Afare himself looked like a statue with its mouth wide open, his words frozen inside.
What followed could only be drawn from Afare’s unconscious mind some hours later in a hospital. A barrage of shoes, bags, pens, mathematical sets, name it, were hurled in his direction. Heavy footsteps, shouts, banging, blows, heavy breathing, surging crowds of wild students after him intermittently crossed his mind in his hospital bed where he lay barely able to move his body. His swollen, half closed eyes and bandaged foot seemed to tell the rest of the story.
As this story highlights, manyteachers are not prepared as young professionals for the realities of School Related Gender Based Violence (SRGBV) and can become actual victims of such violence. SRGBV has been an issue of discussion in sections of Education International Affiliates and Education International Africa. The scale up and wider coverage among unions in Africa can ensure that young teachers like Afare who join the teaching profession are properly equipped to bring an end to School Related Gender Based Violence.
November 25th of each year is the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Still today, at the end of the second decade of the 21st Century, the world needs a dedicated day to focus minds on the fact that gender-based violence, especially violence experienced by women and girls, remains highly prevalent in our societies. Global estimates show that as many as 35% of women have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
In recent years, the scale of the violence, abuse and harassment faced by women in all walks of life, and especially in work environments across different sectors, has been brought into focus through global mobilisations by survivors and activists made visible with campaigns including #MeToo, #YoTambien, أنا_كمان#, #BalanceTonPorc, #Niunamenos and #TimesUp. Until June of this year, there was no existing international instrument that covered the scope of violence, abuse and harassment in the workplace. After 10 years of mobilisation and activism, the global trade union movement celebrated the adoption in June of an historical Convention by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in its centenary year.
Convention 190(C190), and its accompanying Recommendation 206 (R206), on violence and harassment in the world of work is a first-of-its-kind global minimum standard on addressing violence and harassment in working life. C190 defines violence and harassment as a range of unacceptable behaviours and practices or threats that can be physical, psychological, sexual or economic (Article 1a). The Convention specifically recognises and defines gender-based violence and harassment (Article 1b), and applies to both the formal and informal sectors, to urban and rural areas and to all sectors. All workers, irrespective of status, are protected by C190: contract workers, job seekers and applicants, apprentices, interns, trainees and volunteers, employers, and workers whose employment has been terminated (Article 2). Significantly, by referring to ‘the world of work’, C190 recognises that ‘work’ does not only happen in a physical ‘work place’; protection, therefore, extends to workers subjected to cyber-bullying and to work-related situations including work-related travel, trips and social activities (Article 3). Violence and harassment by third parties, including clients, customers, patients or members of the public, is also covered by C190 (Article 4). The Convention upholds the principle of ‘leaving no-one behind’ by stating that vulnerable workers who are most likely to be disproportionately subjected to violence and harassment in the world of work, must be protected by laws, regulations and policies ensuring the right to equality and non-discrimination in employment and occupation (Article 6).
The promise of C190 for educators and education support personnel is two-fold: it addresses both the violation of students right to quality education, and education workers’ right to a decent and safe work environment. Education International and its member organisations have been working to eradicate violence in and around education settings, in particular in a number of African countries since 2016.
During the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-based Violence, which runs until International Human Rights Day on December 10th, we will feature a series of stories written by education unionists who have been involved in this work; their stories poignantly reveal the human face and cost of violence and harassment in educational settings from the perspectives of students and educators alike. The stories also show the positive impact that action by education unions can have in the struggle to end gender-based violence and harassment in and around educational settings.